Valve's next play for Artifact

Valve's next play for Artifact

The sky is falling!

Today marks just over three weeks since the launch of Artifact. And let me tell you, a lot has happened in that short amount of time. Less than a decade ago, a launch like Artifact's wouldn't have been a catastrophe, as many people claim it is. In those days, Artifact would have been a disappointing launch, sure, but it would put pressure on the developers to listen to the game's community, implement requested features, and continue to iterate and improve. In today's world, however, many people think the game is an utter failure! Some even think Valve is going to stop supporting the game entirely! Yikes!

Steamcharts for Artifact’s launch

As you can see, launch day had a massive 60,000 users playing Artifact and then for nearly every day afterward, that number would decrease. Exactly three weeks after launch, Artifact is hovering around 8,000 users. The rapidly declining amount of users is a pretty significant indicator of a dying game.
In my opinion, Valve is likely more worried about the User Reviews on Steam. Currently sitting at "Mixed Reviews". Of the 16,000 Reviews, only 52% are Thumbs-Up. And if you look at the number of English language reviews, there's only 7,000 total reviews, 65% of which are Thumbs-Up. Which means there are more negative reviews than all of the English language reviews!

Twitch numbers dwindling

twitch numbers
This is a screenshot of the Twitch viewership last night. Let's make a list --
  • Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Links. A free-to-play, simplified version of the Yu-Gi-Oh Trading card game (from 1999), released for the mobile market. 1,108 viewers
  • Runescape. A free-to-play web-based MMORPG, also available on mobile, which was updated to its current version, known as "Runescape 3" in 2013. 1,048 viewers
  • Super Mario Bros 3. A Nintendo Entertainment System platform game that was released in 1990. Although, nowadays it's played on emulators. 1,016 viewers
Suffice it to say, while Artifact is in great company, for a brand new title from one of the biggest game developers on planet Earth, this is an extremely disappointing turn of events. Unfortunately, in today's world, a game's success is often compared to its viewership numbers on Twitch. But can Artifact really be that bad?
Taking a look at Sullygnome's Twitch statistics, you can see Artifact is actually the 21st most viewed game on Twitch. Beating out Magic: The Gathering by 600,000 hours of watch time. Sure, both are way behind Hearthstone, sitting at a comfortable 28,000,000 hours, so it might not actually be as bad as it seems. However, these numbers are likely skewed because of the BTS Preview tournament and WePlay's Mighty Triad tournament, both bringing in massive numbers for a few days of streaming. If you sort the numbers by last two weeks, Artifact has half the viewership of Magic: The Gathering.
Overall, the Artifact community sentiment is pretty bleak. Patch 1.1 didn't save Artifact from the onslaught of negativity. To make matters worse, Valve hasn't said a word since the last update, telling us they are focusing on the next patch, promising "Skill-based progression", whatever that means.

What caused this to happen?

Depending on who you ask, you might get vastly different answers. One of the most common complaints online is that some cards are just broken and overpowered. " is too powerful!", " is too expensive!", and so on, and so on. But I don't think this is the issue. People just flat out aren't even playing the game.
According to the Steam Database page, the average amount of time played per account with the game installed is only 17 hours. Is that really enough time to understand complicated concepts like tier ratings of cards? To me, it seems like many people download the game, try it out, and then quit. But why could that be?

Is it because there isn't a Ranked or Ladder mode?

Valve has already told us how they feel about this subject. At the 03:13 mark in this Ars Technica video, Brandon Reinhart, Artifact Project Lead, comments on the ladder system and Valve's perspective --
"There's been a trend in online gaming recently, to push toward matchmaking versus the world, players that you don't know. We've been thinking about this a lot and we asked ourselves what made card games fun in the old days? It was to play with your friends. When we think about how people will play Artifact, we want to enable a social environment where groups of players can play with one another. We've moved a long way away from the single massive ladder, to thinking about this much smaller and social-driven experience. Our thinking about game modes is moving in that direction."

Maybe because the game costs $20?

Many people thought this game would be entirely Free-to-Play, some have even asked for entire collections to be enabled for players, forcing Valve to monetize the game through cosmetic micro-transactions, similar to their model with DotA 2. I won't argue, that's been a very lucrative model for DotA 2, but could it ever work with a card game?
Some people even complain about what they call a "Pay-to-Play" system for the competitive modes. Each "Gauntlet" requires you to spend a single Event Ticket, which is worth $1. There, you must win as many games as you can, before losing 2, in hopes to receive packs as a reward. In my opinion, this isn't really the "Competitive" mode, it's just called that in the client. This is more of a gamble mode, risking $1 for a chance to win some packs for your success.

Why Valve is in this for the long haul

Clearly Valve has been listening to the community's sentiment, otherwise they would have never made a statement like this. "We're in this for the long haul." Valve is essentially just re-assuring Artifact fans and players that they aren't going to "give up" just because of a perceived bad launch. Which, to me seems pretty obvious for one major reason --

Steam makes a lot of money

Steam Spy reports that Steam generated $4.5 billion dollars from game sales during 2017. At that time, Valve was taking a 30% cut from every sale on Steam, which equates to $1.5 billion dollars for Valve. (As of December 3, 2018, Valve reduces their cut from sales to 25% for high revenue generating games, reported by Polygon)
This means Valve could technically kick their feet up and just rake money in, through Steam. So, from Valve's perspective, is Artifact a flop? Maybe it is, but does it matter if Artifact isn't generating mind-boggling amounts of revenue within its first month of being live? If Valve wanted to, they could lose money on Artifact for a very, very long time, and it would barely make a dent in the company's bank account.
This is a luxury that might not last forever. As of December 6, 2018 Epic Games now has their own Marketplace, the Epic Games Store. Where right on the front page of the announcement, it says "Our goal is to bring you great games, and to give game developers a better deal: they receive 88% of the money you spend, versus only 70% elsewhere.", a direct jab toward Valve.

Steam can be used to promote Artifact

First of all, people often forget about the number of Dota 2 players. Every single day, about 600,000 players will log into the Dota 2 servers and play. That is a staggering amount of players. Of course there is going to be cross promotion between Dota and Artifact, these are two games in the same universe. In fact, there's already been a slight crossover, don't think for a second this won't continue --
Every major patch, every new expansion, every time something interesting happens in Artifact, Valve can slap Artifact on the home splash screen of Steam. Every moment Valve can get, they'll be reminding players of Artifact, and I'm sure there will be a constant influx of new players each time it's on the front page.

Steam is important to Artifact's "success"

One thing people aren't talking about is the revenue generated. Valve is a Privately held company, so they aren't as driven by shareholders and showing positive revenue growth year over year. But if they were a company like that, would you really consider Artifact a failure?
Excuse me? 6 million cards? By December 1st? That's three days! In three days, 6 million cards were traded on the Steam marketplace. If you weren't already aware, Valve takes 15% of every transaction made in Artifact. After selling $20 games, selling countless $2 packs, and then taking a 15% cut of every card sold in the secondary market on the Steam Marketplace? That's quite a bit of money! I'm sure Valve might not have the same idea of Artifact being a "failure" as a lot of people claim it to be...

Valve's next play for Artifact

Artifact esports

Way back when the game was still in the closed, invite-only beta, Valve announced that there would be a mega Artifact tournament, and first place would win $1,000,000! People are calling this "the Artifact TI" (Which would be "the Artifact the International" ha!) and people are waiting with bated breath for details. How do you qualify? Where is it being held? When?
Is it possible Valve doesn't go through with the "Artifact TI"? They've already teased it at the opening ceremony of TI8. I think whether or not this tournament happens is going to be a huge indicator of how Valve feels about their game, right now. If they start hosting major events for Artifact, they really do believe in the game and will support development. However, if Valve really feels like the launch was such a catastrophe, that they pull back on Artifact esports? Well, maybe the naysayers are right.
In that scenario, couldn't Valve just lump "the Artifact TI" with the actual TI? Think about it, hosting the Artifact $1,000,000 tournament as a side event at The Dota International. Maybe playing the finals out between a break in the DotA games, streaming it to the massive TI audience. ESC Watch reports over 66 million viewers tuned in to TI8, this past August.

The next expansion set

Could another expansion set help the game? As I mentioned before, every time a new expansion is released, Valve can advertise Artifact through the Steam marketplace Splash page, for as long as they want. In every other digital card game, expansions add new depth and sometimes new mechanic to games, expanding the overall card pool and bringing in new players, as well as players that left for other games. This is exactly what Artifact could use.
We already know the second set is coming. First, the set's icon is in the game files --
Second, Richard Garfield told me personally that he already designed most of Set two with his initial game design. So the cards are certainly made and likely being play-tested this very second. Could a new expansion re-invigorate Artifact's dwindling user count? Probably, but wouldn't a new expansion already be too quick? The game hasn't even been out a full month yet.
Furthermore, the game is often cited as being too confusing. Wouldn't adding a bunch of new and flashy cards into the mix only complicate things further? Ideally, you announce the next expansion set of cards at the Artifact TI, in front of tens of thousands of Twitch viewers, who have been explained numerous times how to play the game, and hopefully have at least tried it.

Ranked Ladder?

Lifecoach’s comment on the launch day, where he says he loves Artifact, but he wants an MMR system, or some form of a ranked mode. He would later expand on this, stating that he wants to stop streaming entirely until the ranked Ladder mode is released. Many pro players feel the same way Lifecoach does, and to be completely honest, I feel the same way. But will we ever see a Ladder mode?
In the Patch 1.1 Update Blog post, Brandon Reinhart leaves us with this quote, "While finishing this update we've also been working hard on the next update, that we expect to ship next week and which is focused on a skill-based progression system."
Should Artifact players temper their Ladder and Ranked MMR expectations? As I've already mentioned in this article, Valve doesn't want to have Ladders or Ranked MMR in Artifact, as Brandon Reinhart said in the Ars Technica interview. Maybe Valve has changed their mind because of the negative feedback? Maybe today's update will surprise everyone?

Transition into Free-to-play?

Really, this is the biggest change Valve could make to appease the furious online gamers that love to complain about Artifact. I've read many various ways Valve could transition Artifact into a Free-to-Play model, but none of them really set well with me. I think it's pretty obvious how Valve could do this in a fairly painless way...
The game costs $0 to download and install. Once installed, the only Game Mode available is Phantom Draft. Free Drafting of cards, playing gauntlets. You can not buy packs, event tickets, anything.
Except for a "Starter Bundle" $20, unlocking the full game and all the game modes, as well as giving the 10 packs, 2 starter decks, and 5 Event tickets, like everyone else gets when they purchase the game.
Doing this would introduce the game to a wider audience, where they can learn the cards for free and still enjoy the game on some level. This would also make the general population’s understanding of the game increase, allowing for future growth through streaming, making high level gaming more accessible to the audience. This, in turn, would likely help the Twitch viewership increase, as well.
The only reason I can think of why Valve wouldn't do this, is probably because they don't want an unnecessary focus on Draft Mode? If Draft becomes the main game mode, they don't sell packs of cards at $2 a pop, they don't get cards going up and down on the secondary Market, and they won't get people buying Event tickets, because why would they? Valve needs Constructed modes to be the primary mode, otherwise they lose out on tons of revenue.
But there is a potential for a plan. Valve could put more of an emphasis on "Featured Events" for free accounts, like the current event, Call to Arms, with pre-constructed decks. Valve could make a Featured Event for everybody, where some of the top performing decks from Constructed tournaments are available, allowing free accounts to play with them. This could potentially lure the free accounts out of the Draft Mode and into constructed? This is definitely something to think about.

The next update to Artifact is coming...

Many expect the next major patch to come later today, December 20, 2018. What could Valve have in store for us? We haven't heard a single word from Valve about the next patch. What do you hope Valve will do with Patch 1.2?
Thanks for reading! You can follow Artibuff on twitter @Artibuff and you can follow me @rokmanfilms!
Excellent article! We can all just hope for the best of the game, and I honestly don't think the game will die. Valve has been working on it for four years and they love it, so it will get better, the Artifact team doesn't just to stop, they announced a update for this week and said there will me more frequent updates. I just hope they make good and fast decisions to keep it alive, and then improve it over the time, like they do with Dota.
Fester Bester-Tester
I'm of the opinion that the preconstructed Call to Arms decks and ladder would be a much better free to play option. Phantom draft is cool and good but for a new player it is sort of dumping them right in the deep end. Drafting isn't a really good way to learn the game.
Also, if there's still an overall $20 buy in I think a more drastic change is needed. My ideal solution is to make casual mode much more expansive and generous by making 'proxies' available for every card in casual matchmaking. IE, allow everyone to play with a full card set in casual constructed from the get-go. Make cards they don't own be black and white or something to differentiate them, don't allow them in expert mode, and don't allow them in tournaments (or give organizers the option to allow or not.) Or maybe only allow proxies in private games, not in general matchmaking? There's room for variation here, but the core is important IMO.
Using proxies in casual play with friends has always been a thing with offline TGC's. It's part of the model, though because it doesn't create any revenue by itself it might not be part of the 'business' model. This is a major thing that Valve overlooked.